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Arts & Entertainment

Scene Case Study: The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin

Lesson time 16:46 min

Aaron analyzes a classic scene from The West Wing: the scathing confrontation between President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Governor Robert Ritchie (James Brolin).

Aaron Sorkin
Teaches Screenwriting
Aaron Sorkin teaches you the craft of film and television screenwriting.
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The scene is this. Bartlet is in the middle of his reelection campaign. He's running for a second term. He's running against Robert Ritchie, the governor of Florida. The Republican nominee is played by James Brolin, and they're both in New York tonight. There is a benefit. I believe it's for a-- excuse my memory. I think for a Catholic charity, that the benefit was for. It's a performance of a Broadway play I made up. I invented a Broadway play that the Royal Shakespeare Company was doing called The Wars Of The Roses where they had put together a bunch of Shakespeare plays into one evening, and added songs, and things like that. Anyway, Bartlet is attending a Broadway show tonight, and uncomfortably enough, so is his opponent, Ritchie. And in the middle of the show, they both find themselves downstairs in the lounge near the restrooms. If you've ever been in a Broadway theater, you can picture what that looks like. And Bartlet has a lot of things on his mind. He's contemplating assassinating someone, and CJ Cregg's Secret Service agent, played by Mark Harmon, has been shot and killed just in the last hour. So, Bartlet's gone down there just for a private moment, and a moment later, Ritchie comes down there for the same thing. And there they are, the two candidates for president alone. No press, no staff. Presumably there's Secret Service nearby, but they're by themselves for the first time in their lives. [MUSIC PLAYING] Caught me. Mr. President. Governor. You enjoying the play? I am. How about you? Well, we just got here. We were at the Yankee game. We got, you know, hung up in traffic. Yeah, I know. Listen, politics aside, and I don't want to make a big deal out of it, but you probably insulted the Church, and you can head it off at the pass if you speak to the Cardinal tonight. Well, I didn't mean to insult anybody. No. And it's a baseball game. It's how ordinary Americans-- Yeah. No, I don't understand that. The center fielder for the Yankees is an accomplished classical guitarist. People who like baseball can't like books? Are you taking this personally? No. Something horrible happened about an hour ago. CJ Craig was getting threats so we put an agent on it. He's a good guy. He was on my detail for a while, and he was in Rosslyn. He walked into the middle of an armed robbery and was shot and killed after detaining one of the suspects. Oh. Crime? Boy, I don't know. We should have a great debate, Rob. We owe it to everyone. When I was running as a governor, I didn't know anything. I made them start Bartlet College in my dining room, two hours every morning on foreign affairs and the military. You could do that. How many different ways do you think you're going to find to call me dumb? I wasn't, Rob. But you've turned being unengage...

Your script starts here.

Aaron Sorkin wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins. Those napkins turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. Now, the Academy Award-winning writer of The West Wing and The Social Network is teaching screenwriting. In this class, you’ll learn his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell. By the end, you’ll write screenplays that capture your audience’s attention.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Aaron Sorkin is a dialogue genius and seeing him discuss his thought and writing process was incredible and taught me more than I could have hoped for

Aaron's movie/show examples aren't that interesting. Besides that we can get into his head, and touch his way of thinking.

Very helpful. Definitely the most helpful advice was to get through the entire first draft before going back and revising. I'm a perfectionist, and it's a relief to learn that I'm more efficient and effective after my first pass.

The best part of the class was listening to how Aaron organized his thoughts, developed ideas and followed through with them. His successes were my reason for taking the class and his dialogues were inspiring -- real game changers for T.V. and movies when he began.


Jorganna T.

I love his work he seems very smart but it is hard to focus on because he says um every 10 seconds. This does not affect my personal opinion of him at all, he is brilliant and amazing! However, this particular lesson was just hard to hear.

Śmigły .

He finally lost me. in "DRAW FROM YOUR OWN PERSPECTIVES", he casually states that he's not as intelligent as his characters. This contradicts everything he told us about knowing your characters, about researching your material. In order to write the dialog of a character who has a certain level of knowledge, I could not believably write their thoughts accurately. To write LESS intelligently is not a barrier. Just the fact Mr. Sorkin did not get questioned about a made-up medical term he wrote into a scene is not an indication he needn't be as intelligent as his characters. It just means he didn't get caught at it.


Hi everyone! Message from the MC Community team -- make sure you join Aaron Sorkin's Class Community! There you can discuss writing techniques and other class material, network with other students, trade tips and reviews, and stay up to date on class contests & activities. Link here: Also, FYI! We recently launched a contest to win 2 tix to Sorkin's latest screenplay adaptation on Broadway, To Kill A Mockingbird. Learn more and enter here: Contest closes this Sunday, Nov 24 at 10pm PT. Can't wait to see your submissions!

Eric G.

A well written political rapartee, but poorly acted. Sheen isn't my favorite actor talent-wise. Brolin so-so. Loved the scene, though it was lost in a less than believable encounter...shall we say, "very TVish." One thing about that series which always struck me was the writing far exceeded the acting, but it did make Aaron's point.

A fellow student

Very good camera and lighting. Scene set. Both the Characters in that scene were one millimetre from convincing. Almost as if they were trying to be sincere, rather than being sincere. Which is why just before Sheen throws the lighter, that line isn't heard properly about "kicking ass". Sheen wasn't convincing on how he was hurt in the comeback about crime, therefore the reaction was also almost sincere.

Steve P.

Bartlett tossing his lighter to the aide after his parting shot was the epitome of cool.

A fellow student

G.............. M. Thomas, WA The West Wing venue... Taking a look at The opponent of President Bartlettt and his second term. It is Mr. Ritchie. Bartlett wants Ritchie to give him a smart line, an educated line. Bartlett is annoyed when opponent Ritchie is not quite smart or sophisticated in his part of their give and take, As writers, we can make anyone we want to look intellectual, to give the appearance. The scene between the two candidates is interesting' fascinating. good acting to good written words.

David D.

I do very much prefer to hear Aaron open up and autopsy his own acclaimed and extensive body of work as opposed to the younger unaccomplished folks from a few lectures back. It's much more impactful hearing him explain the motivations of a powerful scene from a successful and award winning effort.

Carla C.

I didn't watch any of West Wing. I hate politics. I like the line of Martin Sheen, though, regarding zen and his contempt for the other man who is so disengaged while he boils over. But then the cool and collected Brolin just gives it to him, like go for it, Buddy, I can be just as engaged as the next guy. If I understand it correctly.


All I can say is "Crime, boy I don't know." Brilliant. Great intentions: to convince and to respect. Good ones to remember.